In the landscape of filmmaking, there’s few terms as precarious and oddly undefinable as “inspired.” For instance, a term such as “inspired by true events” may trick general audiences into thinking a film is based on a real occurrence or “music inspired by the film” may leave listeners wondering if the soundtrack has a validated appearance within the film itself. In a weird way, it’s a new wave of implicit branding that has shaped “inspired” into a term that removes justification and responsibility from cross-promotion, yet can still be applied in it’s definable state to films themselves.
In the case of Almost Human, one could say that the film by Joe Begos is “inspired by” the genre films of John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, and George A. Romero, even if the film’s aesthetics don’t naturally reflect any of those filmmakers. After a terrifying opening sequence and a wonderfully Carpenter-informed title sequence, Almost Human takes off into handheld horror territory, although with an excellent sense of focus and frame structure to keep the film from falling victim to shaking camera syndrome. But more importantly, Almost Human’s voice never tells the story in quite the same way as the filmmakers that inspired it, instead working in intentionally vague territory in order to distance itself from gaps in plot holes.
Don’t get me wrong, Almost Human is quite a likeable film, and one that’s rather intense and fun in many parts while tending to its grosser, more wicked nature, while briskly jogging towards an unpredictable climax. There’s an absolutely vintage vibe to the flick, and for fans of practical effects and shameless sci-fi bloodbaths, this film may join your regular movie night rotations. Yet, the film’s narrative intention is its real issue, unable to find a plausible reason to keep the wheels of the story twirling towards an unstoppable force of extraterrestrial annihilation, a plot device which begins in a much more promising place than where it ends. That’s not to say that the film should sacrifice its mystery in order to provide a satisfying product, but there feels like a lack of context that the dialogue cannot salvage and that the characters are never strong enough to distract from.
Joe Begos shows a ton of potential in Almost Human, providing a multitude of environmental shots — from suburbs to the forest to gas stations — that feel organic in presentation and help ground the film in its own breed of realism. Begos captures a dramatic need and a flair for atmosphere expertly, even if his talents at maintaining these qualities changes from scene to scene following the second half of the film. Begos, under the psuedonym Barry Norman, shoots the film with a handheld style that evokes voyeurism and creeping dread, which furthermore makes certain reveals all the more frightening and horrifying while also appearing rich in color and sleek in picture quality. Primarily, Begos’s lens captures Rob Fitz’s excellent special make-up effects to a stunning effect, clearly making the money shots of the films disturbing moments all the more valuable.
Begos commands his main cast well, even though many of the one-scene players appear to be untrained and awkward around the underwritten or cliched dialogue. The best actor of the bunch would be Graham Skipper, whose misunderstood and withdrawn lead provides both an underdog worthy of rooting for as well as an emotionally vulnerable everyman. Josh Ethier does a great job as the imposing Mark, even if he’s reduced to little more than a brutal, babbling madman in the last half of the film. And Vanessa Leigh tries her damndest as Jen, providing a much more involved and courageous performance than the opening sequence may let on.
While not necessarily either a loving homage to days of genres past or an instant classic of the alien abduction genre, Almost Human is still a mostly good time, blending an old-fashioned narrative with new fright film aesthetics for a unique and entertaining feature. The film has its share of flaws, particularly in the supporting acting and pacing departments, but that doesn’t keep its wealth of imaginative and atmospheric horror from making the experience ultimately worthwhile. For those expecting to see another film in the cut of John Carpenter, they may be disappointed as the camerawork and storytelling isn’t nearly as graceful or patient, but Joe Begos proves himself among the list of genre filmmakers to be watched, especially once he gets his hands on a larger budget.